Days When the Trainer Did Sutures on the Bench


The training staff that works with the players of the Montreal Canadiens includes athletic and massage therapists, strength and conditioning coaches, rehab specialists, consultants in osteopathy. Throw in a platoon of equipment managers and it’s a team of ten that’s charged with keeping the Habs in health and trim through the long months of an NHL season, not to mention plentifully supplied with tape and sticks.

That’s pretty much the norm across the league, nowadays. It wasn’t always so. In earlier days and continuing on through much the league’s nearly-100-year history, teams like Montreal, Toronto, and Boston tended to rely on the efforts of a single hardy individual to take on all the many duties of a hockey trainer, from massaging sore muscles and sewing up sutures to sharpening skates and packing up gear for out-of-town games.

Their names may have faded, but in their day, men like Tim Daly, Bill O’Brien, Win Green, and Harry Westerby were as famous in hockey circles as the stars they tended to.

Daly started with Toronto’s NHL team before they became the Maple Leafs in 1927, and kept at it until he retired in 1960 at the age of 75. A confirmed character, Daly was never accused of pampering his players: when they complained of aches, he often told them to “skate it out.”

He was said to maintain a policy by which you had to have played for the Leafs for at least five years before he’d give you a post-game rubdown. In the late 1940s, he disdained players improving their basic armour by adding thumb guards, shoulderpads, elbowpads. Real hockey players, he grumbled, never bothered with such “jim-jams.”

Bill O’Brien, portly trainer of the old Montreal Maroons defined his job in 1934: he had to be “a combination of doctor, chiropractor, and masseur” with a knack for “applied psychology.”

His most consistent concern during an NHL season? “Staleness,” he said, which he defined as a mostly mental state. “It is evidenced by a gradual growing lethargy and is a type of he melancholia,” he explained. “It is combatted by lots of sleep, readjustment of diet, and alcohol rubs.”

Harry Westerby was a boxing champion before he became the mainstay of the New York Rangers’ dressing room in the 1920s. Manager Lester Patrick liked to say he was the most valuable man on the team. So single-minded was he in his care of the Rangers’ uniforms that he refused to send them into local storage during the summer, preferring to ship them to his home in Toronto, where he stowed them down the basement for safekeeping.

Win Green, the Boston Bruins’ long-time trainer, worked a summer job looking after baseball’s Red Sox. In the 1930s, he calculated that the Bruins’ supply of dressing-room refreshments for a single season included 2,112 oranges and lemons along with 4,500 sticks of gum. On nights when the Boston Garden was especially wintry, he brewed up a coffee-malt concoction to keep the players warmed and alert between periods.

Hazards of the trainer’s job? A shot by Detroit’s own Joe Carveth found Red Wing trainer Honey Walker on the bench during a 1944 game in Montreal and fractured his jaw. (He refused to leave his post before the game was over.) And Frank Paice, veteran New York trainer, was once assessed a penalty for arguing too vociferously when a referee called a penalty against the Rangers. A second Ranger went to the box on Paice’s behalf.

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